One Day At A Time

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Schloss Neuschwanstein from the bridge.

Two of my friends independently used the phrase “one day at a time” to me over the past two weeks, once to help me cope with some of the difficulties I’ve faced and another to describe her mother’s fight with cancer. Some perspective there, but the phrase has stuck with me.

I’ve already detailed the difficulties of living in a small town in Germany, and since I last wrote, I’ve encountered more. So what does it mean to me to take it one day at a time? I’ll explore this with a one-two punch of also detailing all of the fun stuff I’ve been up to lately!

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Insel Mainau gardens.

One day at a time is feeling sick and skipping out on the Abendmarkt to treat myself with a 6-hour binge of Stranger Things (watch it) and a home cooked “Gesund Essen” (healthy meal) of my favorite veggie (Blumenkuhl, or cauliflower — my host family remembered) in the most amazing broth by my wonderful, vegetarian host family.

One day at a time is not being able to sleep more than three hours for a couple days in a row but waking up early anyways and taking a beautiful trip with my friends to Europe’s fairytale castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein.

One day at a time is being exhausted with German learning for hours on end only to make random German friends in a bar and to speak to them all in German, even when they respond in English: “Wow, you’ve really just been taking for one year? It’s so funny how you respond in German even when we are speaking English!”

One day at a time is dealing with a homophobic incident at a nightclub (which maybe I’ll write about later, I dunno) and waking up Sunday and grabbing breakfast with friends. It’s saying, “I’m going to take the next bus home” three different times that day because sitting on a dock on the Bodensee was calling, and later a Biergarten.

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The view of Schloss Hohenschwangau from Schloss Neuschwanstein – castles on castles.

One day at a time is feeling down for no reason, and instead of going home, going to the lake for a birthday with my friends like I planned, renting paddle boats with slides on them (best invention ever!) and having a relay race down the slides until we couldn’t stop laughing and were totally out of breath.

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View of Stuttgart from the Killesbergturm.

One day at a time is having a train cancelled at 8 pm, the next coming at 9 and arriving 5 minutes after my bus at 9:25 and having to take the last bus at 10:25. It’s instead of being fed up with small-town transportation, having two of my friends pretend to play Super Smash Brothers with my hands as the characters at the trainstation and grabbing a Hefe at the Bahnhof bar with them for the extra hour I had to wait for the bus.

One day at a time is also having a series of perfect days – like my trip to Stuttgart – drinking wine and beer all day in the Schlossplatz and tearing up the dance floor at the tiniest gay club where no one else was dancing. It’s realizing the next day that my friend and I downed two bottles of wine, 5 liters of beer, two mixed drinks and two glasses of wine in one day, and heading to the park, hungover, anyways (with all of our stuff) to climb the tower and take a look out at the city from above. By the way, a hangover in German is a “Kater,” which also means tomcat. It’s trying to eat at the same Vietnamese restaurant three times unsuccessfully and laughing about it and finding another. It’s sitting around with the whole day ahead of us and realizing the day was best spent strolling around and drinking and sitting in beautiful places.

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Schloss Neuschwanstein from the bridge.

One day at a time is skyping my niece who can barely talk and crying a little when she says, “I love you Brennan.” And it’s watching her laugh at me speaking German and me laughing at her trying to say “Nighty, night, don’t let the bedbugs bite” by saying, “Night, night. Don’t let the bugs bite you!” — which is so resonant living in mosquitovile! It’s having to keep in perspective that I won’t see her until she’s a whole year older and different but knowing that I’ll be an even better uncle for it.

One day at a time is taking a zoomed out look at what’s going on, how small the problems I faced that day are, and restarting the new day – or even the new hour – with them off my shoulders. It’s also not trying to put every little moment into a greater context, not placing the anxieties of an entire year abroad on a bad moment or day. Challenging moments come and go, and it’s easier to look at them like that when I take them one day at a time. And despite this, I don’t think taking it one day at a time is mutually exclusive from taking the happy moments and letting them define my experience here and acknowledging that the challenges also define my personal growth. It’s one day at a time, but it’s still a journey.

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View of the mountains and lake from Schloss Neuschwanstein.

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Killesbergturm in Killesbergpark. It sways a little in the wind.

Perfect Days and Swimming Without A Destination

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Hammocking on the Mindelsee.

I’m going to tell a story about my best day in Germany and follow it with what may be a stretch of an extended metaphor about how it relates to the difficulties of living abroad. Just a warning for cheese, so bear with me.

On Saturday, I planned a hiking trip around the Mindelsee, a small lake near my town, with a few others in my program. We packed lunches, water and hammocks and set out for what was a truly perfect day in Radolfzell.

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Some of my friends fell asleep during our picnic break.

We began our trek by stopping at the dock my host family showed me the first weekend I was here and then set out hiking around the lake. It was often muddy, but I brought my badass hiking boots. One of the first conversations I had with one of my best friends in the program was whether we’d both brought hiking boots. We had, and we were friends immediately. I wore long sleeves and pants, even though it was perfect and sunny outside, because the mosquitos in my area are killer. I brought my camelbak and hammock – two possessions that just always make me feel at home.

In German, the word for “to hike” is “wandern” and for “to swim” is “schwimmen” (pretty easy, right?). We enjoyed hours of wandern, accompanied by chatting with nowhere we had to be and nothing we had to do. That’s one of the beautiful things about living in the middle of nowhere. We could take our time and actually get to know each other. Three others on the hike had hammocks, which meant we already had threads (literally – ok was that too cheesy?) connecting us. But seriously, hammocking is one of my prized hobbies, and knowing that other people treasured their hammocks enough to pack them in their limited bag space for their year-long life in Germany made me feel like I was with my tribe. Side note: Hammock in Deutsch is Hängematte. It’s a good word.

We hiked for a while, attempting (eventually successfully) to meet up with a few others in our group who came through a different path. After about an hour and a half, we pitched our hammocks and ate our lunches. I had what I have nearly every day for lunch, a cheese and tomato sandwich, and more than enough mosquitos trying to eat my food and my body – which they also did successfully. We hammocked and picknicked for about an hour before taking down camp, which is when we ran into the rest of our group. We finished circling the lake and headed back to the dock.

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The dock on the Mindelsee, my favorite spot in Radolfzell.

About 500 meters from the dock was a floating wooden platform, which a few of us decided to swim to. Bad idea. By the time we got there, I was exhausted, and we realized that it was verboten (forbidden – it’s a cognate) to get on. The platform is meant for birds to land, and also for birds to shit.

At the point I realized that we weren’t going up, I started to get a little nervous. I had been banking on taking a long rest in the sun on the platform. We debated the meaning of the sign and whether we should go up anyways, but I was afraid one of the words meant “river drain” and that we might get pulled under. I didn’t give it much more thought before I started swimming back, somewhat frantically, realizing I needed to not waste any energy treading water deciphering the sign when I was already tired.

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My German tutor and friend Christina came for the hike.

I diligently swam, sometimes on my back to save energy and other times just giving it my all because I so desperately wanted to get back. Maybe it doesn’t seem that far to some, but it was a lot for me – especially after a long hike and not regularly swimming long distances. I kept myself calm, knowing that I could make it back but also that if I got too panicked about how far away the dock seemed, it could be dangerous. At one point I tried to float on my back. My body started to sink, and I realized that I wasn’t going to get any rest until I got to the deck.

Winded, I got back to the dock and pretty much crawled until I could sit on the edge and catch my breath. The others arrived soon after me, at least one of whom was also as winded and also fell to his knees. I didn’t go back into the water after that, but I was proud of my little workout and felt good after catching my breath.

We chilled out on the deck with our toes in the water for a while more before stringing up our hammocks again and eventually calling it a day for the hike because we had to get ready for the Reichenau Weinfest.

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Hiding from the rain under a giant truck, with lots of wine.

Reichenau is an island in the Bodensee just about 30-40 minutes away from Radolfzell. We headed to the festival, where we immediately got a few bottles of wine. The Weinfests in Germany I’ve been to so far have you buy a commemorative wineglass as sort of an entrance fee, and then you can fill it as you wish at different stations. There was some amazing food, particularly a noodle dish with salmon and curry sauce and fried mushrooms with dipping. We drank and drank and had a blast, particularly after such a perfect afternoon wandern and schwimmen. The weather had been 10/10 all day, so of course it had to unexpectedly start raining at the Weinfest. We hid under a truck, drinking and eating more for a bit, before finally heading home.

So I had one perfect day in Germany. And I’ve had many, many great days. But the challenges of living here – particularly in the very small town I live in now – are often overwhelming. And though the perfect days make my time here worthwhile, the challenges permeate almost every moment of the mundaneness of everyday life.

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Relaxing on the dock (some more than others).

It’s like swimming to that platform in the lake (OK here comes the metaphor). The sun might be shining down; the water might feel great; I might be with good friends. But safety and comfort still seemed far away. I had to tell myself that the end of the swim was worth the hard part, only to find out that safety and comfort wasn’t where I thought it was. We couldn’t even fully understand the sign saying not to get on the platform, even though we could figure out generally what it meant. That’s every moment of every day living somewhere where my language skills revert me back to the days when I was a child and couldn’t say what I wanted. It’s like wandering and swimming without knowing the path, just knowing that I’ll end up somewhere and hoping that it’s a better place than where I started.

I tweeted that night that I’d made the right decision to come to Germany, and that I was in love. I really felt that were true that night, but sometimes that feeling changes. It’s a roller coaster for me, and after a perfect day comes normal days, and normal days here — especially in my small town — are much more challenging than normal days at home. Little things I took for granted are extremely difficult, like trying to watch Mad Men on Netflix (I can’t), watch the Olympics at a bar (sports bars aren’t a thing here and the time difference basically makes it moot anyways), use my cell phones indoors (I don’t get service there), catch a bus (they come once an hour), get a takeaway place to make my food vegetarian, wake up living with friends who I can communicate with effectively or figure out why I can’t get on a platform 500m into a lake when I’m afraid I’m going to sink.

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Hammocking and picnicking and wandern and schwimmen.

I know these sound like little things, but just imagine taking all the things that come easy to you in your everyday life – catching a bus, using your phone, talking in the morning, watching TV – and then make it nearly impossible.

So I guess I’ll keep diligently wandering and swimming here, knowing that even though the dock feels out of reach, I’m going to make it there. And when I do, I can dip my toes in the water and sit out in the sun and catch my breath, and I’ll say again that this was the right decision.

Oh also, this kind of optimism is a very American trait, but I’ll gladly take it. Here’s to more perfect days.

One Week In

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The group in front of the Bodensee (or Lake Konstanz).

I’ve made it through my first week in Radolfzell am Bodensee, ending with a mix of optimistic frustration. My German is improving after five days of classes, but it feels like one of those things where the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Sometimes my teacher will spend a couple of minutes talking without me understanding a thing, others we will be looking at a paragraph and I’ll realize I know zero of the verbs. I’ll learn a word and forget it immediately, or I’ll forget a word I’ve known for years. I keep telling myself it’s the first week, and there’s no way I won’t get better (even though it often feels that way). There’s also the fact that Radolfzell contains what feels to be the highest population of mosquitos I’ve ever been around, and I’m covered in itchy little – and often large – bumps. Let’s also add spotty wifi and cell service to the list.

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I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T do you know what that means?

But feelings of frustration don’t translate that well to writing, and they’re not that interesting. And the frustrations are things I will adjust to. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not easy, especially compared to my familiar life in DC, but I’m still happy that I’ve taken the plunge. So I’ll get on with it. I don’t want to paint a picture of a perfect life here, but there are so many little beautiful things about my experience here that I’d like to share.

On Sunday, after I last wrote, I headed to Switzerland with two friends in my program, Nicole and Lydia, and Nicole’s host family to celebrate Swiss Independence Day at the Rheinfalls, a lengthy waterfall on the Rhein, with some Feuerwerks (I think you can translate that on your own, it’s a cognate). There’s not a whole lot of things to do in the area, so we arrived at the fireworks quite early to ensure a parking spot. Once we finally walked over the Rheinfalls and down to a good viewing point, we realized we had nearly four hours until the display began.

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Lydia, me and Nicole at the Rheinfalls.

I spoke a bit with Nicole’s family about the Bundesland, or German state, I will be living in after Radolfzell. It was a part of former East Germany, so they told me – in German – how they had never been to the area. They spoke at length about reunification and how afterwards, der Bundestag (the German government) invested a lot of money into infrastructure in those areas. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to understand this more complicated subject matter in German. They also spoke a bit about farming practices in Germany, particularly meat practices, which surprised me. It’s apparently becoming a lot more like American farming practices, which was confirmed by my host family who took a visit to Switzerland later in the week and went to a farm where cows were hooked up to machinery. Still glad I’m vegetarian, and still going to stay that way.

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The Rheinfalls.

The fireworks were honestly some of the best I’d ever seen, with some really unique ones I had never seen before. We arrived home at half till midnight, so I had to quickly retire so I got enough sleep before my first day at my language school.

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The ruined castle Hohentwiel.

The makeup of my language class is pretty funny – there’s one Italian man who is probably 40, four male students from my program and then about ten 16-year-old students, mostly from Italy. My teacher is a young blonde woman who is very patient and kind and speaks slowly for us. Sometimes I do an exercise perfectly, and others it’s covered in red. It’s 100% in German, so when we learn new words she describes them in German, which can be challenging. Luckily I have my pocket dictionary handy at all times. If we get caught speaking another language, we get a yellow card, and whoever ends up with the card has to do extra homework. It feels like I’m in middle school, but I guess I basically am with my current speaking abilities. Learning a language is what you put into it, and I have much work to do. It’s the biggest challenge with the biggest reward.

Throughout the week, I mostly spend time with other Americans in my program after class. We’ll go sit and grab beers or dinner somewhere after class, and I’ve gotten super close and comfortable around them. Unsurprisingly, German work and study is a bit different than in America, so we have two 30-minute breaks and one 75-minute break for lunch. This is great for my exhausted brain and a good way to get to know my friends better. We’ll often grab food and eat it on the Bodensee, but there are quite a lot of pesky mosquitos around there.

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Hohentwiel from above (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

On Tuesday, we took an excursion to Hohentwiel, a ruined, 1100-year-old castle just a short train ride away from Radolfzell. This was definitely the highlight of my week after the Rheinfall Feuerwerks. We hiked up a mountain (about as high as the Washington Monument) to the ruins and walked around for about an hour. There was a gorgeous panoramic view of the area – apparently on a clear day, one can see the Alps. I’ve found that admiring beautiful places from up high is one of the greatest pleasures of life. I could see the Bodensee and tons of farmland and fields, as well as small towns nearby.

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Our view from Hohentwiel.

On Wednesday, we had a Stammtisch, or group meetup at a restaurant. We drank wine at the lake beforehand, and because of my empty stomach I had a little bit more fun than I expected for a Wednesday. I ate a whole pizza for dinner – and of course beer – and then had to catch a later bus to my house so I could be well rested for class. On Thursday, I ate dinner with my host family for the first time, which was really lovely. They pulled out a book of other students they had hosted throughout the last seven years, complete with photos and letters. I’m the first American to stay with them and one of the oldest students. One day, they’ll be showing my photo to another student.

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Don’t worry, I’m still weird.

I guess there’s not a lot more to say right now. The pace of life here is definitely a little slower than I’m used to. I’ve got some fun plans for tomorrow but will probably stay home for the rest of the night. We will go on a hike tomorrow around a lake near where I live, and later we are going to a town called Reichenau on an island in the Bodensee for another Weinfest. Next weekend, I’ll be going to Stuttgart with a friend, and I’m hoping to try my first couchsurfing experience in Zurich after that (because Switzerland is spendy as hell).

Standing at the Precipice

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We spent two days of orientation at a castle in Budenheim, near Frankfurt.

I can tell you that a year abroad looks much longer now that I’ve made it to Germany. During our orientation, we were told of a “honeymoon phase” in our time here. For some, it comes at the beginning. For others, the middle, and others at the end. I don’t believe that this time is quite mine – but that is not to say that I am not so excited and happy to be here. This is a challenge I know will strengthen me, and I envision my German journey to be continuously improving.

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Packed a year of my life into maybe too many bags…

There are few things more isolating than not being able to fully communicate with my host family. Sometimes I realize that I just can’t say whatever I want to say. Other times we figure it out with a combination of my broken German and their English, particularly my host mom’s. Occasionally I’m afraid that I said something totally different from what I meant. We described it as a game earlier today, with us going back and forth with German and English and pantomime to decipher the phrases and words we don’t know. It feels like heavy lifting for my mind, and communication is key to feeling at home.

Now this may sound like a bad thing, but I think it’s the most crucial part of my time here. My host family is so lovely and patient, and I learn from every conversation. It is no doubt frustrating to have to speak like a child, but I can tell my German has improved without having started a single class. I will be starting them on Monday. In combination with my courses and my new family abroad, I can’t imagine any better way to learn a language I find so beautiful.

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Felt right at home waking up to some cat cuddles.

I live with Monika and Thomas, their son and their cat George. They are both vegetarians; Monika gave me a high five when we discussed our similar eating habits. George cuddled with me this morning, which was comforting. I’ve found that having a cat around and listening to music in English has helped me overcome some of the isolation that comes with my inability to communicate fully.

We eat breakfast each morning; it’s part of the hosting experience for them to provide me with that. Breakfast generally consists of bread (which is very delicious in Germany – there are two bakers in my program and I’m extremely jealous of them), a delicious sliced cheese with paprika and chili in it, a paprika spread and another cheese spread that go with my bread, fruits, coffee and fruit juice. They eat hot cereal, which I am anxious to try as well. We talk in fragmented sentences with long pauses of silences, which I can’t tell is because we’re in Europe where silence isn’t awkward or because of the language barrier. It’s a really beautiful way to start the day.

We live in an absolutely stunning, rural part of Germany, Radolfzell am Bodensee, only 15 minutes from the Swiss border, which I crossed yesterday, and surrounded by lakes, fields and forest. Bodensee, or Lake Konstanz, is an extremely large lake that borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Today we took a walk to a smaller lake near our home in the light rain and made small chit chat, talking about our countries and homes, our friends and our families. My host dad took a photo of me in front of the lake for my parents.

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Standing in front of the Mindelsee on a rainy day. Monika and Thomas send their greetings to my family.

Also in Radolfzell are 19 other fellows in my program, which makes me feel more at home. I’ve made a few close friends, and I have others that I made in orientation who are studying in Köln and Saarbrücken. I plan on visiting them throughout the year, particularly when we all split up on our own across the country after our language phase.

 

Yesterday, some other fellows and I took an excursion to a bigger, nearby town called Konstanz. We drank bier and ate together, and I went with one friend to a Weinfest happening in the town. There was a band in 80s clothes and platform boots singing songs in German, hundreds of attendees clapping and singing along. It felt so truly and undeniably German and was one of those moments where I felt I had made the right decision. An older (and drunk) German couple kept turning to us and prosting (cheers auf Deutsch), and an even older woman dressed in yellow was dancing wildly across the crowd with the most unexpressive face. Love it. We had glasses and glasses of wine from the region and even met the queer community in the area, as they had a booth. It’s just not something I would have gotten in a bigger city.

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Germans getting down at the Weinfest.

Some more general information about my program: The German government is paying for all of my experience here, giving me a monthly stipend, paying for my language courses and university and setting me up with housing. After my two months learning German in Radolfzell, I will be moving to the western part of eastern Germany, a Bundesland (or state) called Sachsen-Anhalt for ten months. I will be living in either Halle or Magdeburg, which are both smaller cities with around 200,000 people in them. At first I was disappointed to not be in a big city, but I believe that I will learn German better this way and also have a leg up being a foreigner trying to make friends with other students. I am also just over an hour from Berlin, so I can visit when I want, even if it’s just for a day or a concert or an event.

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New American friends in Germany.

I begin my university phase in Sachsen-Anhalt, from October through January, where I will take four courses. Because of the level of German they will be taught in, I only have to get participation certificates for the courses, which I can work out with my professors. During this time, I will be searching for an internship – more likely two internships due to a new German wage law – that I will complete from February through June. I hope to work in politics or local government, but it will be up to me to apply for as many positions as possible to increase my chances. I will also volunteer during my permanent placement. I hope to spend my time volunteering in some sort of refugee center, both for personal and professional interest. I think the perspective I would get working at one would be a unique view of a crisis affecting the entire world, and it’s also very relevant to my professional interests in politics and American media coverage of refugees.

So here I am, standing at the precipice of this huge journey with already so many challenges and beautiful moments. I will be blogging throughout, both to share my journey with my friends and because I feel deeply that writing is the best way for me to collect my thoughts and reflect on the moments that make up my life here, and I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read something that is very much for myself (and you two, mom and dad). Next time I write I will have started my courses, but until then, tschüss!

How to be a Solo Traveler

Wanted to share my first Buzzfeed Community post.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

You’ve decided to take the most important journey of your life.

1. Pack everything you think you need and then leave half of that at home.

Pack everything you think you need and then leave half of that at home.

QDKFQSZ / Via qdkfqsz.com

 2. Book your hostel.

Book your hostel.

Hostelworld / Via italian.hostelworld.com

Instant Groove! Party Hostel, Budapest

3. Get there the cheapest way, even if it’s the slowest. Picturesque train journeys are always a win.

Get there the cheapest way, even if it’s the slowest. Picturesque train journeys are always a win.

National Geographic Travel / Via travel.nationalgeographic.com

Flam Railway, Norway

4. Don’t make any plans. You don’t actually know what you want to do.

Don't make any plans. You don't actually know what you want to do.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

… except maybe that one thing you always wanted to do or that one thing your friend told you that you’d love. Plan to do that one (even if it’s super touristy).

Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna

5. Make friends with a stranger immediately.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

Tumblr / Via mashable.com

Decide whether said stranger will be a good companion and if so determine to do everything with him or her.

6. Go on a tour with your hostel and make friends with even more strangers. Get to know your way around.

Go on a tour with your hostel and make friends with even more strangers. Get to know your way around.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

“Look mom – I made friends abroad!”

Stockholm, Sweden

7. Figure out what you actually want to do and do it.

Figure out what you actually want to do and do it.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

Széchenyi Baths, Budapest

8. If you can’t figure it out, ask.

If you can't figure it out, ask.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

“Oh Diplo is in town? Do tell me more.”

Mosebacketerrassen, Stockholm

9. If you still can’t figure it out, find art.

If you still can't figure it out, find art.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

East Side Gallery, Berlin

10. Or an abandoned place to explore.

Or an abandoned place to explore.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

Beelitz-Heilstätten, Germany

11. Or nature to wander.

Or nature to wander.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

12. Or really whatever presents itself to you.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

Tumblr / Via tumblr.com

(Make outs not guaranteed).

13. Go for a night out where the locals go.

Go for a night out where the locals go.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

… or wherever the people in your hostel are feeling. Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations!

Chez Georges Wine Cellar, Paris

14. Stay out late even though you have a train to catch in the morning.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

Tumblr / Via miscgifs.tumblr.com

You can sleep on the train!

15. Ask everyone you met to add you on Facebook or for their emails, even if it seems awkward at the time.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

WordPress / Via alot2thinkabout.wordpress.com

You may end up traveling together or visiting each other later on your trip.

16. Let them know when you’re in their countries. You might even have a place to stay.

Let them know when you're in their countries. You might even have a place to stay.

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria

17. Make that train in the morning, even though you didn’t sleep.

Make that train in the morning, even though you didn't sleep.

Anna Janicka / Via forexsocialtraders.com

… or if it’s right, just skip it. Maybe there’s more you need to do.

18. Sleep when you can.

Sleep when you can.

Kurisurokku / Via news.com.au

That probably means on your train.

19. Blog about what you want people to know that you did.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

Iken Dust / Via ikendust.be

Even though most of your Facebook friends aren’t going to read it, it’s important to keep track of your journey for yourself too!

And your mom will love it.

20. And Skype your friends to tell them what you really did.

How To Be A Solo Traveler

Hello Giggles / Via hellogiggles.com

“I don’t even know what language he was speaking in, but he was so hot.”

21. Book your next hostel and get ready to do it all over again!

Book your next hostel and get ready to do it all over again!

Brennan Suen / Via bsuen.com

Vegetarian Cooking: Tofu Tacos!

Final

Since I moved back to DC, I’ve started eating vegetarian again (with fish and seafood on occasion) and taking a more comprehensive approach to being healthy by working out and cooking the majority of my meals. This Tofu Taco recipe is one of my favorites and tastes better than any beef or chicken tacos I’ve ever had, although I can’t compare it to my favorite dish in the world, fish tacos. This is an extremely easy recipe and makes enough to feed 4-6 people (or yourself for days) and can easily be adjusted to fit vegan diets.

An aside, most vegetarians and others seem to have strong opinions on tofu and soy and its health benefits/environmental impact. I enjoy soy as a nice protein boost and meat substitute, but I suggest only buying organic because non-organic soy has been processed with a controversial solvent called hexane.

Tofu Tacos

Cooking Time: 45 minutes to press the tofu, 15 to cook

Ingredients:

1 package Organic Extra Firm Tofu
1 can corn
1 can black beans
1/2 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, sliced (I use one half orange and one half red)
1/2 bag spinach (or more depending on preference)
Cumin to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Chili powder to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Corn tortillas

Optional:
Greek yogurt
Avocado
Salsa
Hot sauce
Mexican cheese blend

Preparing the Tofu:

If you’ve never made tofu at home, the first thing you need to know how to do is press and dry the tofu. You can do this for 30-45 minutes before cooking, but sometimes I will leave it out for an hour or so if I have the time.

I use Trader Joe's Extra Firm Organic Tofu

I use Trader Joe’s Extra Firm Organic Tofu. Slit open the sides and drain the water out.

Slice the tofu into 1/2" slices in the container

Slice the tofu into 1/2″ slices in the container.

Put down a cloth towel on a hard surface (I use a baking sheet) and lay paper towels three thick on top. Place the tofu slices on top of the paper towels.

Put down a cloth towel on a hard surface (I use a baking sheet) and lay paper towels three thick on top. Place the tofu slices on top of the paper towels.

Place three more paper towels on top of the tofu slices and cover with the other half of the cloth towel.

Place three more paper towels on top of the tofu slices and cover with the other half of the cloth towel.

Put a hard, flat surface on top of the towels (I used a wooden cutting board) and place heavy objects on top to press the tofu. This will help the towels soak up the water.

Put a hard, flat surface on top of the towels (I used a wooden cutting board) and place heavy objects on top to press the tofu. This will help the towels soak up the water.

Replace the paper towels after about 30-40 minutes. I may do this twice if I am frying the tofu, but it isn't completely necessary with this recipe.

Replace the paper towels after about 20 minutes. I may do this twice if I am frying the tofu, but it isn’t completely necessary with this recipe.

After about 30-45 minutes, the tofu should have lost a lot of its moisture and is ready for the recipe.

Cooking the Taco Filling:

Grill the veggies in oil until lightly browned.

Grill the veggies in oil until lightly browned.

Ground up the tofu and mix in with the grilled veggies.

Ground up the tofu and mix in with the grilled veggies.

Open and drain your beans and corn. I use Trader Joe's Whole Kernel Corn and Cuban Style Black Beans.

Open and drain your beans and corn. I use Trader Joe’s Whole Kernel Corn and Cuban Style Black Beans.

Add the beans and corn.

Add the beans and corn.

Add in a handful or two of spinach. You can really go crazy with it because it cooks down so much.

Add in a handful or two of spinach. You can really go crazy with it because it cooks down so much.

Continue mixing the ingredients together.

Continue mixing the ingredients together.

Add seasoning to taste. You will probably use more than you think you do so don't be shy, especially with the cumin and chili powder. This really gives it that tex-mex taste. You can also use a package of pre-made taco seasoning, but I like knowing exactly what ingredients I am using.

Add seasoning to taste. You will probably use more than you think you do so don’t be shy, especially with the cumin and chili powder. This really gives it that tex-mex taste. You can also use a package of pre-made taco seasoning, but I like knowing exactly what ingredients I am using and premade seasoning may contain additives, etc.

IMG_0847

A blurry, up-close photo of what your taco filling should look like when done.

Assembling the Tacos:

So far, the recipe is totally vegan. You can leave out the Greek yogurt and cheese if you want to keep the recipe free of animal products.

Clear the pan (or use a new one). Take a corn tortilla and cook it on one side for a minute or so before flipping. Add cheese and cook until the other side starts to brown and the cheese begins to melt.

Clear the pan (or use a new one). Take a corn tortilla and cook it on one side for a minute or so before flipping. Add cheese and cook until the other side starts to brown and the cheese begins to melt.

Add the taco filling on top of the cheese.

Add the taco filling on top of the cheese.

Add a dollop of salsa and Greek yogurt and a couple of slices of avocado. I also use hot sauce.

Add a dollop of salsa and Greek yogurt and a couple of slices of avocado. I also use hot sauce.

Final product! You can make the toppings look like the Hungarian or Bulgarian flag if you wish (this one is Hungary)!

Final product! You can make the toppings look like the Hungarian or Bulgarian flag if you wish (this one is Hungary)!

You can also use the filling on nachos or add it to mac and cheese or any other dish you like. Hope you enjoy these tacos as much as I do!

Mom and SUEN take New Orleans (Dec. 4-7 Part 2)

Mom and me at the Christmas Parade

Mom and me at the Christmas Parade

Egg in a Jar at Lüke

Egg in a Jar at Lüke

The next morning, mom and I hit up our final Besh restaurant, Lüke. I ordered the ultra-rich Egg in a Jar, which consisted of poached eggs, grits, fried shrimp and a cream sauce. Mom ordered Shrimp and Grits, which was relatively similar except non-fried shrimp and a tomato based sauce. The meal continued the trend of unbelievable food in New Orleans and me feeling sick to my stomach after eating past my limits (it’s hard to stop when it tastes so good!).

We had originally planned on going on a walking tour of the French Quarter until we learned about a Christmas parade going through town that we decided was worth seeing. We sat on the curb of Canal St. for hours watching floats and dancers pass by.

We took a long walk to get to the French Market, which had a large variety of knick-knacks, flea market goods and foods. I tried an alligator dog that was excellent. Our feet were pretty tired after the walk, so we left to go back to our hostel for another break before dinner.

Christmas parade float

Christmas parade float

Our final meal in New Orleans was at the famous Pascale’s Manale, which many people had said would be disappointing – it certainly wasn’t! Although the service was very slow (it was understaffed for sure), the Barbeque Shrimp was a messy delight – they gave us each a paper bib, which was truly necessary – and the Frutta Del Mare (seafood pasta) was filled to the brim with seafood. We left again unable to eat dessert.

Mom getting messy eating some famous Barbeque Shrimp from Pascale's Manale

Mom getting messy eating some famous Barbeque Shrimp from Pascale’s Manale

Mom wanted to go to bed early that night, but I was keen on going out for a last time in New Orleans, so I went to the common outside area of the hostel and met a group of Irish guys traveling through the South together and a guy from Quebec who I would go out with. We started with a live charity concert at Freret Street PUBLIQ HOUSE, where the boyfriend of the lead singer proposed on stage (my response: “could anything more American happen than a public proposal in front of a bunch of strangers?” – Europe got me too sarcastic).

We left PUBLIQ and cabbed to Bourbon Street where we drank more and danced a bit. The boys and a female bartender legitimately forced me to take a shot out of bartender’s breasts, which served as my coming out moment: “No really, I don’t want to – I’m gay,” I said as she grabbed my head and pulled it towards her chest. They all laughed when I told her that was as close as I’d ever been (or wanted to be) to boobs. I’m sure I’m the first guy she’s ever had to force to take shots from her. At 2 a.m. I got a text from my mom asking if I was alive; I reassured her that I’d make it home safely. I got back at 4 and my mom asked me if this was what it was like when I traveled.

The St. Louis Cathedral next to Jackson Square

The St. Louis Cathedral next to Jackson Square

“Occasionally…”

Mom and I left early the next morning after one of our best bonding experiences ever. I can forever say I successfully got my mom to take a shot of Fireball AND that she knows all the steps to the “Cupid Shuffle.”

Love you mom!